Turkey Vulture

Cathartes aura

Nickname: buzzard

This large bird species has been around since prehistoric times. Turkey vultures act as nature's ultimate garbage collector, recycler, and scavenger using their keen sense of smell and sight to find ripe carcasses. Vultures do not usually kill their food; they eat animals that die from disease, natural causes, or are roadkill from car collisions. A vulture's beak is its main ripping tool; strong and powerful enough to tear the toughest cow hide. Even though they are scavengers that rip apart carrion (dead or decaying flesh), their feet are more like a chicken's, rather than powerful eagle talons. Their feet are adapted more for walking, running, and hopping. Vultures may eat alone, or in large groups and will eat virtually anything. When the meat supply is scarce, a turkey vulture will eat a seasonal side dish of pumpkins, grass, leaves, and a variety of seeds. Did you know that some scientists estimate that a vulture can eat 111 pounds of carrion yearly?

It is amazing that the turkey vulture can eat a rotten diseased carcass and not get sick or die. The bird's droppings are also disease free. These birds play an important role in nature by cleaning disease out of the environment. This helps protect other animals and people from getting sick. Scientists think the reasons behind this digestive cleansing process could be important to medical science.

Look for turkey vultures on warm sunny days, soaring on heat thermals in the sky. It is easy to tell vultures apart from other birds because their wings form the shape of a "V" (as in vulture) in flight and they tilt from side to side as they soar, unlike eagles and hawks.

Biologists once thought that the turkey vulture was a bird of prey and a raptor like hawks, owls, and eagles. But, in 1994, scientists used DNA tests and found that they belonged in the storkfamily. This is where they are classified today.

Use these simple tips to identify the turkey vulture:

  • eagle-sized blackish bird with 6-foot wingspan and 27-inch body (they're really two shades of very dark gray)
  • white bill
  • reddish legs
  • unique red featherless head, with a light covering of down. (Feathers on the head of this bird wouldn't make sense, since they would just get messy with the rotting smelly carrion that the bird eats.)
  • no bird song/call. The turkey vulture has no syrinx (a bird's voicebox) and is silent except for an airy hissing or grunting.
  • flight feathers are a silvery gray.

Don't look for a turkey vulture in any nest. Vulture eggs are actually deposited on the ground hidden under cover, in rock crevices, in a hollow tree or hollow log, or sometimes in caves. The eggs are whitish with lots of dark brown markings and both parents incubate the eggs from 38 to 41 days. Like many species, young birds look different than the adult birds. Young vultures have a gray head, bill, and legs. They get their adult coloration and plumage when they are 1-2 years old.

Vulture Gliding

Turkey vultures regurgitate (spit up) a pellet, similar to an owl pellet, of indigestible material like bones and fur, measuring around one inch on average. Pellets are an oval shape, gray or brown in color, and can be found beneath roosting areas (a perch where birds rest or sleep) in a deciduous forest or woodland near farmland or open areas. If you visit a vulture roosting area, beware, turkey vultures and their chicks swiftly vomit in the direction of any disturbance to scare it away! When the vultures leave the tree and fly upward in the air in a circle, this is called a "kettle." Can you guess why?

In Wisconsin, according to data from the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, turkey vultures breed statewide. They probably also nest along river valleys like the Mississippi and along the St. Croix River. Scientists that study and tag vultures have discovered that most, maybe all, Wisconsin vultures migrate to South America. The birds return to Wisconsin and their summer feeding grounds in the early spring. The turkey vultures's entire global range includes southern Canada and the Americas down through the southern tip of South America.